By on October 24, 2018

We’ve been critical that self-driving systems are, ahem, “oversold” by automakers and tech firms hoping to boost their stock valuations. That doesn’t mean autonomous vehicles won’t happen, just that the timeline is probably a lot longer than the public has been led to believe. Still, it makes sense to pursue AVs. The first company to achieve legitimate self-driving will blow the hinges off a door leading to an array of new business opportunities.

General Motors, long considered a frontrunner in the autonomous race, is apparently in desperate need of a second wind. Its Cruise self-driving unit is said to be woefully behind in its attempt to bring an autonomous vehicle to the commercial market by 2019. Some GM staffers have confessed that the current system isn’t even capable of identifying whether objects are in motion or not — which seems like an important distinction for a computer-controlled automobile to be able to make. 

According to a series of interviews Reuters conducted with eight current and former GM and Cruise employees and executives, serious troubles plague the automaker’s autonomous arm. “Nothing is on schedule,” one source said, noting a flurry of internal targets the company has already missed.

However, Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt claims everything is going according to plan. Vogt said whatever limitations GM faces will be mitigated by limiting the upcoming autonomous taxi service to specific regions, starting with San Francisco. From there, the system can be improved and rolled out to other cities before ultimately becoming capable of driving anywhere. “Based on where we’re at and where we’ve been, we’re on track to hit that [2019 goal],” Vogt said.

Unfortunately, one current and three former Cruise employees told the outlet a decidedly less optimistic story. They claimed to have witnessed an issue where test mules failed to identify whether objects in the road were stationary or moving. Fortunately, the cars have a tendency to exercise caution, slowing or stopping when they approach a collection of parked motorcycles or bicycles.

From Reuters:

At times, the software has failed to recognize pedestrians, and has mistakenly seen phantom bicycles, causing the cars to brake erratically, according to two of the sources. And Cruise does not yet have a data-sharing collaboration with the San Francisco Fire Department, a necessary step to train the cars to respond to fire truck sirens, according to a fire department spokesman.

In addition, the open-source software robotics tools that Cruise used to develop the technology has delays that slow messages from the car’s sensors to the car’s brain, according to a fourth former employee and nine other people familiar with Cruise’s technology.

It sounds like the Cruise AV is currently stuck in geriatric mode, but that’s not all that uncommon for self-driving vehicles. Even the most advanced systems currently on the road are exceptionally timid and don’t like venturing too far from their home base.

Vogt said next-generation hardware and software should help address these issues, improving performance. “Early in development I’m sure there were phases where we were putting systems together where they didn’t meet the requirements we needed for launch, and that’s part of the testing and development process,” he said.

GM Cruise AV roofrack

Those improvements will be incredibly important in 2019, as GM’s $5 billion in investment commitments from Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp. and Honda Motor Co. is dependent on Cruise achieving specific performance targets. Failure to adhere to its publicly announced timeline is also likely to rattle investor confidence. General Motors doesn’t want that, especially since its stock has declined since June of this year.

Does this mean GM’s autonomous development is a sham? Not necessarily. While it might not have the lead we once assumed, no other established automaker seems ready to surpass it. Tech firms have hit snags of their own. Uber basically had to restart its autonomous development program after a highly publicized fatality during testing and Waymo, which has the only true driverless fleet on public roads, has had problems of its own.

Users of Waymo’s pilot program have started complaining that its vehicles have issues coping with certain complex tasks. The worst of these, according to reports from August, are an occasional inability to turn left across multiple lanes of traffic and issues merging onto busy expressways. Other users claim their AVs stopped abruptly, sometimes for no apparent reason.

“Everyone in the industry is becoming more and more nervous that they will waste billions of dollars,” said Klaus Fröhlich, a board member at BMW and its head of research and development team.

General Motors claims safety is its highest concern, adding that it won’t put cars on the road that aren’t up to the task. “Right now we are in a race to the starting line,” said GM President Dan Ammann. “Getting stuck on one particular parameter, or one particular scenario, is missing the fundamental point of what is the total overall performance of the system.”

[Image: General Motors]

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39 Comments on “More Evidence That Self-driving Cars Are on a Road to Nowhere...”


  • avatar
    ceipower

    With GM’s well documented record of foisting unproven and unfinished new tech upon the public , how could anyone trust that “Self Driving” would be any different under GM’s leadership?

  • avatar
    bluegoose

    I think the most telling admission came from the Toyota engineer who said we would not have Self Driving Cars “in my lifetime.” Toyota has a lot of money. They don’t need to bow to hype. Eventually we may have self driving cars..but not for decades.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo2

      Toyota may have money but they have a history of being very risk averse. If anyone is able to do it Toyota certainly wouldn’t be it.

    • 0 avatar
      Kruser

      So, the ~25k miles per day that Waymo is driving on public roads, and the fact that they’ve been running a pilot in the Phoenix area for 400 citizens for many months time doesn’t sway you to think this will happen faster? https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidsilver/2018/07/26/waymo-has-the-most-autonomous-miles-by-a-lot/#9c25ffa7ee53

  • avatar
    jmo2

    A very informative and well written post. The headline on the other hand is horrid misleading clickbait.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “The first company to achieve legitimate self-driving will blow the hinges off a door leading to an array of new business opportunities.”

    … starting with lawyers.

  • avatar
    hpycamper

    Autonomous vehicles won’t be able to do anything better than a taxi can do now.

  • avatar
    hpycamper

    $5000? Where did that number come from? Taxis and Uber, etc. are on call now. And to be accurate, AVs don’t do anything useful now, just consume vast sums of money. Autonomous Vehicles as popularly envisioned are a long ways away, and may be here about the same time as flying cars and personal jet packs become viable.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo2

      $5000 would be the cost of the cameras, scanners, software, etc. Just a rough guess based on what Tesla and Cadillac are charging.

      • 0 avatar
        hpycamper

        $5000 does not buy you autonomy, just driver assistance.
        I don’t think the amount of programming needed for actual autonomous vehicles and the robustness of the associated hardware is truly appreciated.
        If you don’t want to drive, or can’t, why not just call a taxi or Uber?

        • 0 avatar
          jmo2

          I already answered the question. Price! Even if it costs $25k for the system that’s a lot less than Ubering 15k miles a year for 10 years.

        • 0 avatar
          riggodeezil

          “I don’t think the amount of programming needed for actual autonomous vehicles and the robustness of the associated hardware is truly appreciated.”.

          Agreed. To me, it seems like an almost impossible programming task. I’m sure someone will figure it out but it probably won’t be in the near future. I could be an outlier but the degree of failure that I personally experience with electronic gizmos and “programmed things” in other aspects to of every day life is not one I’d find acceptable for a mode of transportation.

          • 0 avatar
            jmo2

            “I personally experience with electronic gizmos and “programmed things” in other aspects to of every day life is not one I’d find acceptable for a mode of transportation.”

            Your engine and transmission have been entirely computer dependent for at least 20 years. The average car already has 100 million lines of code.

          • 0 avatar
            Drzhivago138

            “[T]he degree of failure that I personally experience with electronic gizmos and “programmed things” in other aspects to of every day life is not one I’d find acceptable for a mode of transportation.”

            What car do you drive, by the way?

  • avatar
    hpycamper

    jmo2
    Electronic engine and transmission control is child’s play compared to what’s needed for autonomy, and it sometimes doesn’t work right. People’s well being and lives will be at stake so AV software and hardware must work flawlessly 100% of time to be viable. Don’t see that in the near or mid future.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo2

      Your life is at stake with current systems. A bug could cause your stability to control to lock the left rear tire and send your spinning off the highway.

    • 0 avatar
      Kruser

      No system can work flawlessly 100% of the time. These systems just need to be significantly better than human drivers. They seem to be on track for that. Waymo is driving around 1 million miles a month unassisted with a human intervention rate that is continually going down.
      Given that they’ve been running a pilot with 400 members of the public for months and they are planning on launching a commercial service by the end of the year, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t see this as being imminent.

      • 0 avatar
        hpycamper

        Flawlessly 100% of the time is the bar AVs will have to meet. Decreasing human intervention rate is nowhere near no human intervention.
        The quest for AVs reminds me a bit of nuclear power generation. Cost way more than anticipated and 1 technical glitch could wreak havoc.
        Driver assistance is probably what we’ll get.

  • avatar
    Tele Vision

    ‘Even the most advanced systems currently on the road are exceptionally timid and don’t like venturing too far from their home base.’

    It’s a little anthropomorphic. It should read thusly:

    ‘These glass and metal machines, endowed with enough torque to de-bone a human, are guided by millions of lines of code written by people who are paying off student loans.’

    Modern airliners can take-off; waypoint; and land with absolutely no human intervention – but not one of us would board one without at least one pilot in the front office, correct?

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      And two pilits are still required. As with the cars, aircraft automation works fine when things work correctly, but the crew still have their hands on the controls and so override these systems on a regular basis. It takes a while for a person to regain situational awareness that isn’t paying attention the way a cockpit crew does.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      I would be fine boarding an autonomous airliner for a regular route in normal conditions. I would not board one if the itinerary included slugging it out in New York rush hour.

      Naturally occurring phenomena are predictable, and can be engineered around fairly easily. Interaction with higher life forms are and can not.

      Hence why the entirety of Alphabet’s (Waymo’s and Google’s….) hardware, software and engineering might combined, are still quite retarded at interacting with life forms, compared to a fruit fly.

      Leading them to be unable to design a robotic vacuum cleaner that works even half well at cleaning an abandoned living room. Add a cat to the mix, and it’s all over.

      As for Toyota, their engineering leads have been at humanoid robotics since back when it was Japan, not The West, who were in a credit bubble of sufficient magnitude to sucker people into believing AI is anything more than a tool for recruiting sheltered starry eyeds from good engineering schools.

      American military operations, operating in far simpler and more accident tolerant theaters than US urban traffic, would have been all over autonomous patrol vehicles if they showed even the most remote likelihood of being workable. They don’t.

      The greatest brainiac at Google, still cannot write code able to solve the simplest of captchas….

      And are decades away from a price comparing shopping search engine who can determine that two Pokemon characters from two separate online retailers, are in fact the same product…. Something the 4 year old target audience for Pokemon characters can do in a second, on their cheap android phone, in bad lighting, while riding a tricycle, watching TV.

      “AI”, if you define it loosely enough, does “work.” It makes rice cookers better, for one. And robovacuums aren’t entirely useless. Google Translate is supposedly not THAT dependent on human curation. But determining that a car jacking attempt is in progress, let alone respond properly to one, in New York rush hour…. Heck, for all the hype, I’m not even sure we’re closer now than we were in the 50s. As at least back then, even the genuinely best and brightest were still naive enough to plug away it it in a coordinated fashion at IBM.

  • avatar
    watersketch

    If autonomous vehicles were such a good thing wouldnt we have automated all the freight and passenger trains by now? That is surely a much easier technology problem.

  • avatar
    DeadWeight

    By 2022, 80% of new semi-trucks sold will be fully autonomous, and 65% of those will fully electric.

    By 2024, 90% of all consumer new vehicles will be fully autonomous, and 80% of those will be electric, able to be summoned by a smart phone app, and 50%+ of those will be “owned/leased” by multiple owners (fractional ownership/possession).

    YOU’LL SEE!

    • 0 avatar
      ernest

      I won’t be holding my breath.

    • 0 avatar
      TimK

      Sure, and your dates are just more rectal extrapolation. I live in AZ and earlier this year the newspapers were filled with giddy stories about fleets of AV semis rolling down 1-17, and tens of thousands of Waymo and Lyft cars plying the streets by the end of 2018.

      So far, October 2018, it’s bupkis, nada, none. I saw one Waymo test vehicle in the past month. This whole AV thing was oversold to investors and the general public, and there is a price to be paid for the deception.

    • 0 avatar
      DeadWeight

      Did not think /sarc was required.

      Though if one were to listen to Jim Hackett, Mary Barra/Dan Ammann, Elon “Major Tom” Musk, or a plethora of other crack pipe/blunt users and/or pure snake oil peddlers/bullsh!tters, one could be forgiven for missing obvious sarc.

      Faraday Future will lead the way and meet the schedule.

      I must say, however, that we all need to hear the sage opinions and predictions of one Bark Maruth, whose precious Ford is, by its own statements (excuses), and almost singularly (based on financial performance and radio silence of many other automakers), being crushed by POTUS Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, to really know what the future truly holds for autonomous and electric vehicle trends and industry and consumer absorption/adoption rates, let alone viable technology in the mass market progress rates.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      And Anti Aging Treatments will have solved the US medical “crises”…… Because some Fed welfare recipient “invested” freshly printed money in it.

  • avatar
    KevinC

    Let me get this straight – the initial iteration will be half-baked (can be “improved later”), and they intend to start out in – San Francisco?! Have these clowns ever even been to SF? It’s not exactly a good environment for teaching someone how to drive – massive hills, pedestrians, buses, cable cars, etc. It’s an urban jungle of dangerous driving. So somehow it’s a good idea to take your half-baked autonomous experiment that can be “improved later” and turn it loose THERE of all places? Yikes, the public had best take cover. How about Boise or Fresno or someplace a little simpler to navigate?

  • avatar
    tonyquart

    I think it’s right to think that it’s too early to expect the perfect self-driving car now. It needs at least 10 more years to at least ride inside 90% perfect and safe self-driving cars. There have been quite many accidents happened in these past few years with these cars involved. I just read an article that also discusses about this matter at https://www.lemberglaw.com/self-driving-autonomous-car-accident-injury-lawyers-attorneys/. I really hope that the car manufacturers would think seriously to fix the safety features and make it perfect before selling these cars publicly.

  • avatar
    Robbie

    Maybe the future of self-driving cars is more modest.

    You drive out of town; engage the self drive mode (which will be impossible if traffic is heavy, or weather is bad) and then four hours later, at some point near your freeway exit, the human has to take over again.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      Any environment limiting is good.

      You really need hard segregation from human drivers. This is actually critical, as otherwise humans will be slowly but surely squeezed off roads, for an ever growing number of, equally idiotic to anyone but progressively indoctrinated drones, reasons. In order to make the AIs that the naive and privileged classes have staked their reputation on, appear to be working.

      Keep’em separated, and the AIs will be useful. By definition, as noone will choose to use them otherwise. Hence they will inevitably be focused on tasks where they feel they have a shot at beating the existing status quo.

      But mixing them up, will only lead to conflict. Which will, as always, be resolved not on any form of universal merit, but simply by those with the best connections, the deepest pockets and the most privilege trumping the rest.

  • avatar

    Autonomous vehicle technology is not even close to being ready for real world prime time use.

  • avatar
    SunnyvaleCA

    >>> have a tendency to exercise caution, slowing or stopping <<<

    Yeah, I see this all the time around here. As if silicon valley didn't already have bad traffic!


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